Friday, 27 January 2023 is the date on which we mark International Holocaust Memorial Day this year. We are encouraged to honour the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, the millions of other victims of Nazism and the subsequent genocidal regimes since in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
This date was chosen as it represents the date of the liberation of the Auschwitz- Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. 2023 is the 78th anniversary of that liberation in 1945.
Each year, the United Kingdom chooses a theme to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day. In 2023, its theme is that of “Ordinary People.”
Who do we mean by ordinary people? We can explore their role as ordinary people during the Holocaust as perpetrators, bystanders, rescuers, witnesses and victims. We can remember just a few of these legal victims, possible now due to the important Stolpersteine project.
We, as ordinary people today in our HE community, can use this occasion to drive forward remembrance by commemorating just a few of the murdered lawyers. We can reflect on the United Nations General Assembly resolution on Holocaust remembrance adopted on 1 November 2005 which included encouragement to:
“…Member States to develop educational programmes that will inculcate future generations with the lessons of the Holocaust in order to help to prevent future acts of genocide….”
What do we mean by ordinary people?
Here, I have a few suggestions. We could refer to the “public interest” test promoted by our prosecution services in justifying prosecution(1). How about the Clapham omnibus(2) with Lord Reed’s explanation that:
"The Clapham omnibus has many passengers. The most venerable is the reasonable man, who was born during the reign of Victoria but remains in vigorous health. Amongst the other passengers are the right-thinking member of society….., the officious bystander, the reasonable parent, the reasonable landlord, and the fair-minded and informed observer, all of whom have had season tickets for many years".
We could turn to a contemporary reference of the time by Niemoller who stated:
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out. Because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out. Because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out. Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me"(3) .
In short, ordinary people mean all of us.
Ordinary People and the Holocaust
In the Holocaust, the ordinary people had choices:
The victims increasingly found their choices to be limited as the enactment of decrees and proclamations gathered pace, restricting their rights including their citizenship.
The perpetrators chose to participate in activities of book burning, looting on Kristallnacht or by more direct violence.
Others had choices in their active or passive behaviour. Did they help by hiding or protest against the treatment of the persecuted? Alternatively, did they get on with their lives, by not asking any questions about neighbours’/colleagues’ disappearance.
In this way, the inhumane treatment was allowed to continue.
Ordinary People as lawyers
Though the Jewish people made up less than one percent of the population of Weimar Germany, they made up between 25 and 30 percent of the legal profession including a number of leading lawyers. From 1933, a six-year process of eliminating Jews from the legal profession started alongside the increasing legislative persecution of the Jewish people.
The authorities set out to impoverish the Jews, removing them from earning their living and by revoking the licences of Jewish lawyers. Most Jewish lawyers tried to maintain their careers while being discriminated against and humiliated. Some Jewish lawyers resisted. Some Jewish lawyers emigrated while others remained and were thereafter murdered.
The Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) project remembers all victims of Nationalist Socialism by installing commemorative brass plaques (10 by 10 centimetres) on the pavement of their last address of choice. Created by Gunter Demnig, the project’s purpose is to reflect on the statement that “a person is only forgotten when their name is forgotten.”
With Stolpersteine installed in many European countries (London (2022), this allows those that were persecuted to be remembered. These are “counter-monuments” that ensure that the past is not glorified. Instead, we can face up to history head on so the Stolpersteine permit ordinary people today to stumble over the memory of the victims as they walk past their former homes and work. It allows for time to pause and reflect.
For today, let us remember a few of our colleagues commemorated by Stolpersteine:
Hugo Freudenberg (Bochum) was admitted to the Bar in 1913. He fought in World War 1 and was then exempted from the original ban on Jewish lawyers continuing in practice. Not for long however as the persecution continued. Ultimately, he was deported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He had tried to emigrate with his family but failed, being deported to the Riga ghetto.
Arthur Zwirn (Berlin) worked as a lawyer and notary at Neukölln local court and the regional court. He was a defence lawyer until he lost his notary’s office in 1933. He was deported to Auschwitz and murdered there.
Dr. Julius Blumenthal held a doctorate in law and worked as a lawyer. Following the ban on Jewish lawyers, he worked for the Jewish community, and was a legal advisor to the editor and Head of the Legal Department of the "Jüdischen Nachrichtenblatts", the Jewish newspaper (1938-1943). In 1942, the Gestapo forced the Jewish community to put some of the employees on a list for deportation. When some ran away the Nazis arrested eight hostages, including Julius Blumenthal who was later assassinated in Sachsenhausen.
The book Lawyers Without Rights by Simone Ladwig-Winters also provides the names, birth dates, deaths, of 1,807 Jewish attorneys that belonged to the Berlin Bar Association in 1933. Not all of these lawyers were murdered in concentration camps. They were persecuted by the Nazis during the Third Reich.
We as ordinary people have choices. We can use our legal experience to challenge prejudice, oppose hatred, and speak out against persecution. We aim to support the rule of law by ensuring equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law, participation in decision-making, legal certainty, and procedural and legal transparency.
We should recall too the words uttered by a lawyer on November 21, 1945, in the Palace of Justice at Nuremberg, Germany. Justice Robert H. Jackson, Chief of Counsel for the United States opened at the International Military Tribunal:
"The privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world imposes a grave responsibility. The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated".
In conclusion let’s pause today, on Holocaust Memorial Day. Then think in your capacity as an ordinary person be it as a student, academic, lecturer, or in a personal or professional capacity how you will remember and act.
Gillian has been an OU tutor for five years. She is also a practising Scottish solicitor whose professional legal background was mainly public sector experience in the criminal law sphere.
Her academic teaching in Scotland spans Edinburgh and Strathclyde Universities where she teaches delict or tort.vely involved in scholarship relating to online teaching pedagogy and assessment feedback.